Best Of :: Food & Drink
Michael Vasilas approaches a group of four patrons sitting at a table on the outdoor wood deck of his University Restaurant & Patio. The handsome Greek-American holds a heavy metal plate in one hand and a small torch in the other. He squeezes a lemon wedge over the white kasseri cheese square on the plate. Then he sprinkles a little pepper on it. He fires up the torch and flambées the queso, which forms a goldish, crinkly exterior. Vasilas places the plate on the table and everyone digs into the saganaki, one of several deliciously sinful Greek dishes served at this little spot near Jackson Memorial Hospital. In addition to the $7.50 saganaki, you can indulge yourself with $9.95 charbroiled octopus, $6 homemade hummus, and $5.95 melitzanosalata — a fresh-roasted eggplant blended with garlic, olive oil, and potatoes. Vasilas, along with his brother and business partner Steve, took over the restaurant two years ago after moving to the Magic City from the Windy City. In addition to the quaint wood deck, the brothers put in a fully stocked oakwood bar inside the main dining room, where doctors and nurses finishing their rounds can enjoy happy hour. "We wanted to create a place where the neighborhood could feel at home," Steve explains, "and where the people who work around here can get something fresh to eat." University Restaurant & Patio is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Sunday.
Burgers are big — as in big across-the-board sales during stressed economic times. There are big profits for burger barons, and big-shot chefs putting 'em on their big-price restaurant menus. Govind Armstrong and the folks at Table 8 took things a step further by opening 8 oz. Burger Bar in South Beach. It isn't difficult to locate a great burger in this town — if someone claimed that Clarke's, Kingdom, or Grill on the Alley made the best one, we really wouldn't argue. But Burger Bar's eponymous eight-ouncer brings a few distinctions to the table. The beef is culled from hormone-free cows; ground in-house from Black Angus sirloin, tri-tip, short rib, and chuck; and grilled over live oak. Then it's plunked onto a soft, fresh brioche bun. House-cured bacon, house-pickled pickles, hothouse cucumber relish, and homemade heirloom tomato ketchup are among a long list of cool accouterments; there are lots of cheeses to choose from too. Price for the signature burger is $10, a dollar or two less for those culled from turkey or Niman Ranch lamb. Burger Bar bops from 5 p.m. to midnight, and until 2 in the morning Thursday through Saturday. You're gonna like this place. Big time.
Family-owned for 37 years, the small, old-timey joint is now run by brothers David and Joe Arbetter, who insist that the chili used on their dogs be made fresh every day, that the buns be pillow-soft, and that the ambiance stay unpretentious. Simple snacks such as the "All Around" (mustard, onions, and relish) are the brothers' forte, and prices are recession-worthy at $2 to $3.05 per sausage. Inside, the place is a throwback to the shakes-at-the-parlor days when the term veggie dog would have just confused folks. Large sweaty cooks call out orders. Lunchroom dining means grabbing a seat at the counter. And cash is the only way to pay.
Since 1982, Casola's has been serving up delectable, eternally melting (we swear, it's like the Niagara Falls of cheese) New York-style pizza so addictive you might wander back here in your sleep. Slices are so gargantuan that the lifting of one piece has been known to cause hernias. And a single pie can easily feed the entire nation of Zimbabwe or, perhaps, one of the chickens butchered for the jumbo wings. Honestly, this is the only practical explanation for the pterodactyl-size delicacies that come, wrapped in tinfoil, in rations of 6 ($6.99), 12 ($9.99), 24 ($17.99), and 36 ($23.99). Crisp and super-meaty, each wing is fried up fresh and lets out a small stream of steam with the first bite. And don't bother being fussy about sauces — the wings come dry with sides of traditional Buffalo and tangy barbecue dips. Blue cheese is extra (75 cents, to be exact), but as blasphemous as this might sound to wing lovers all over the world, it isn't even necessary.
You place your order in a bar/lounge that feels like a cross between Hustle and Flow's Memphis backwoods and a From Dusk Till Dawn outlaw biker hideout. But you're at the southern edge of Liberty City, on a crossroads with Little Haiti and Allapattah. You order a chicken sandwich, a tall Arizona fruit punch, and a sweet potato pie. You smile, walk your handwritten order to the barbecue man out front, and then pay less than $10. "Extra hot sauce, please," you say.
"You like that, don't you?" he answers with a grin.
"Best chicken in Miami, sir."
You sit down and wait as he removes artfully fire-crisped yet incredibly juicy and tender chicken pieces from the grill and lays them on his cutting board. He lowers the cleaver with guillotine-like precision, splitting bones at the joints and throughout. Then he tongs the chicken, still on the bone, onto a piece of white bread nestled in aluminum foil; douses it in a vibrant red spicy barbecue sauce made in house by secret recipe; and tops it with another slice of white bread. Smiling, he wraps the sandwich in the foil, places it in a paper bag, and hands it to you. You were gonna take it home, but you can't wait, so you rip open the package, take a seat, and revel in the abundance of flavors and textures. This is perfectly executed barbecue chicken. You can get it Thursday from 2 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Tomato or mustard? Tangy or sweet? Every barbecue lover has his or her sauce preferences, but in all honesty, the sauce is just windowdressing. It's the meat that matters and it's James's meat that draws customers to parking lots across town. To cover James's ribs with any sauce, even your favorite, would be a tragedy akin to putting a burlap sack on a beautiful woman. The flavor is simply inspiring and the bones so tender you can gnaw straight through them to the marrow. Save the sauce for that filet mignon or other slab of tasteless meat you bought at the supermarket a few feet away. Call James now to find out where he will be setting up his smoker this weekend (he's usually at the edge of the parking lot behind the Publix on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 48th Terrace). Then get a rack of ribs or some chicken, add a couple of cobs of roasted corn, and head home to eat — if you can hold out that long.